Nato caution on Ukraine risks emboldening Moscow

With a large-scale war still ravaging the heart of Europe, leaders of Nato’s 31 member states meeting in Vilnius for their annual summit have one overriding task: to maintain and project unity. Kyiv has been seeking reassurances that Nato members remain committed to supplying it with the means to repel Russia’s aggression — and for guarantees that its future lies within the north Atlantic alliance. In Moscow, meanwhile, proceedings are surely being scrutinised by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin for any hint of division or softening. The message as the summit goes into its second day is distinctly mixed.

Breaking the impasse over admitting Sweden as a member is a clear positive. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan extracted concessions for lifting his year-long opposition, including US approval of a $20bn deal for Ankara to buy F-16 fighters. But Swedish accession — coming after Finland joined in April — will bolster Nato’s military capacity, and its ability to defend the entire Baltic region against a revanchist Russia. It is also proof to the Kremlin of how counter-productive its war, supposedly aimed at deterring Nato expansion, has turned out to be.

On Ukraine, however, wording agreed on Tuesday fell well short of giving Kyiv the clear path and timeline to membership that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has sought. The alliance did remove the need for Ukraine to pass through a bureaucratic accession process, and made membership dependent on a future political agreement. But by stating only that Nato would extend an invitation to Kyiv to join “once allies agree and conditions are met”, it exposed tensions between a cautious US and Germany, and many central and east European members — plus the UK and France — that have pressed for an expedited process.

President Joe Biden is right to note that bringing Ukraine into the alliance while it is at war with Russia is unrealistic, as it would draw Nato itself into the conflict. Yet it would have been preferable to extend an invitation now that would have put Kyiv on a path to joining soon after the current conflict has ended. Zelensky called Tuesday’s verbal fudge a motivation for Russia “to continue its terror”.

This makes it paramount that allies provide Ukraine with robust and credible security assurances for as long as it is not a Nato member. That means continuing to provide sufficient military and financial support after the conflict ends to deter new Russian aggression and enable Ukraine to rebuild its economy. US officials have cited the “Israel model”, referring to the overt military support Washington provides to the Jewish state without a guarantee that it would use military force to defend it.

Any such assurances should include rapidly building up manufacturing capacity to ensure there are enough armaments to meet Ukraine’s needs. It is deeply regrettable that, in part as a result of the failure to speed up artillery shell production and give Ukraine more advanced weapons systems earlier, the US has had to resort to supplying it with cluster bombs. Some 111 countries, including many Nato allies — but not the US, Russia or Ukraine — have ratified a 2008 convention to ban these repugnant weapons whose remnants can continue to kill and maim civilians for years into the future.

US caution over Kyiv’s Nato membership hints, too, at the limits of America’s readiness to continue to underwrite Europe’s security, nearly 75 years after the alliance’s foundation. Russia’s aggression underlines the need for Europe’s democracies to sharply raise levels of defence spending that are still far short of those in the US — and to take far greater responsibility for defending their own continent, including Ukraine.

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